illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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The Canterbury Tales Summary

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is a medieval collection of stories told by a group of English pilgrims.
  • The narrator sets out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury along with twenty-nine other pilgrims. They agree to a storytelling contest in order to pass the time.
  • The characters represent various social stations, including a knight, some clergymen, members of the middle class, and a few peasants.
  • The stories cover many genres of medieval literature, such as satire and romance.
  • The pilgrims respond to one another’s stories and create links between seemingly disparate topics such as love, faith, and courage.

Summary

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Last Updated on November 9, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1277

April is the time for pilgrimages, and in The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims sets out for Canterbury. They are a varied company with people from all walks of medieval life. The fellowship is led by the Host, Harry Bailey, who suggests that each pilgrim tell a story or two to entertain the others during the ride. The best storyteller will win a supper at the expense of the company on the return trip.

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The Knight tells the first tale. He is a brave, noble, and courteous man who narrates the rivalry of Theban cousins Arcite and Palamon for the hand of the beautiful Emelye, sister-in-law of Duke Theseus of Athens. Arcite wins the tournament, but he dies due to the intervention of the god Saturn, and Palamon marries Emelye.

This noble story is followed by two rather bawdy ones. The drunken Miller relates how John the carpenter is tricked by his unfaithful wife, Alison, and her lover Nicholas into thinking that a catastrophic flood is on the way. John ends up suspended in a tub from the rafters while Alison and Nicholas play in bed and trick Alison's other would-be lover Absolon. The Reeve counters with the story about how clerks John and Aleyn get the better of a dishonest miller by sleeping with his wife and daughter.

The Cook is next in line for a story, and he begins to tell one about a corrupt apprentice but never finishes the tale. The Man of Law steps up instead with the adventures of Lady Custance of Rome. She is sent to Syria to marry the Sultan, but her new mother-in-law kills the Sultan and sets Custance out to sea in a rudderless ship. She lands in England, where, after a series of misunderstandings and false accusations, she marries King Alla only to have his mother set her and her baby adrift again. The family is reunited in Rome.

The colorful, boisterous Wife of Bath speaks next. Her prologue focuses on the defense of multiple marriages and a vivid description of how she has controlled and manipulated her five husbands. Her tale centers on a knight who must discover what women desire most. He learns the secret from an old crone whom he then must marry. He finds his happy ending by giving his wife her freedom to choose.

The Friar and the Summoner present their stories next in rivalry with each other. The Friar tells of a corrupt summoner who is carried away by a demon after harassing an innocent old woman. The Summoner’s tale is about a friar who preaches platitudes to a man named Thomas but really wants only money. Thomas gives him something quite different.

The Clerk’s tale is a moral story about the marquis Walter and his bride, Griselda. Walter chooses the poor Griselda as his wife with the condition that she obey him fully. He tests her fidelity by taking away their two children, first the girl and then the boy. Even though Griselda thinks they are dead, she never complains. She says not one word of protest when Walter tests her again, telling her that he is divorcing her for a new, young bride. That “bride” turns out to be the couple’s daughter, and the family is happily reunited. Griselda has passed every test.

The next story presents a completely different tone as the Merchant relates the marriage of the old knight January to the young May. May falls in love with January’s squire, Damian, and when January becomes blind, the lovers trick him in the garden and have sex. Then they convince January, who receives his sight back just in time to witness the act, that he did not see what he thinks he saw.

The Squire begins a tale of the wonderful gifts of a strange knight to Cambyuskan and of the latter’s daughter, Canacee, who has a magical ring that allows her to understand and speak to birds. She finds a grieving falcon whose mate has been unfaithful, but the story breaks off before the Squire can say how the falcon regains her mate.

The Franklin picks up with his narrative of Arveragus and Dorigen, who live in a blissful marriage until Arveragus must travel to England. Dorigen pines without her husband and worries constantly about the black rocks that line the coast and threaten ships. Aurelius falls in love with Dorigen, but she will not be unfaithful to her husband and tells Aurelius that she will not love him unless he can remove all the black rocks. He hires a magician to perform an illusion that makes the rocks seem to disappear and then tries to hold Dorigen to her word. Arveragus tells his wife that she must keep her promise, but Aurelius frees her.

When the Physician’s turn comes, he tells the story of a corrupt judge who tries to steal a beautiful, virtuous girl through trickery. The girl’s father kills her rather than subject his daughter to corruption. The Pardoner brags about his false relics and hypocritical sermons on greed before he tells his tale of three young men who set out to kill Death. An old man advises them that they will find Death under a particular tree. They find a treasure instead, but out of greed, two join together to slay their companion, who has poisoned their wine, causing them to die too.

The Shipman speaks of a monk who borrows money from a merchant only to lend that money, in return for sex, to the merchant’s wife. The Prioress’s tale provides a sharp contrast, for she tells the story of a small boy killed by Jews for singing a hymn to the Virgin Mary. The child continues to sing even after his throat has been cut, leading the Christians to find him and punish his murderers.

Chaucer himself falters with his rendition of the story of Sir Thopas, who falls in love with an elf-queen. The Host stops him in the middle of the story and orders him to relate something else. Chaucer then tells the tale of Melibeus, whose wife, Prudence, helps him learn about proper counsel and decision-making so that he can make peace with his enemies.

The Monk chooses to present a catalog of men and women who have been conquered by Fortune and fallen from great heights to the lowest depths. These include Queen Zenobia and Julius Caesar. The Knight interrupts this gloomy list, and the Nun’s Priest presents the story of the rooster Chauntecleer, whose dream of being captured by a fox comes true. The fox flatters the rooster into singing and then grabs the bird, but Chauntecleer tricks the fox into speaking and flies off when the fox opens his mouth.

The Second Nun narrates the legend of Saint Cecilie, who, along with her husband and brother-in-law, is martyred for her Christian faith. When she has finished, two men ride up to join the group. The Canon is an alchemist, his Yeoman companion explains. As the Canon flees, the Yeoman tells all the secrets of alchemy and a story of how a corrupt canon and alchemist swindles a gullible priest.

The Manciple and the Parson tells the final two stories. The Manciple relates the story of Phoebus and his pet crow, who tattles on Phoebus’s unfaithful wife and is punished by becoming black and losing its song. The Parson refuses to give a fictional story but instead presents a treatise on penitence, contrition, confession, sin, and satisfaction. The Canterbury Tales ends with Chaucer’s apology for the stories that are worldly and inappropriate.

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